In the lead-up to Saturday’s Game On! concert, the Canberra International Music Festival’s Elsabeth Parkinson discussed games and music with someone who’s been behind the scenes of both worlds. Owain Bolt, game developer and instrumentalist, will not only be playing in the concert himself but will present some exciting previews of what he’s been working on in the digital realm…
CIMF: Tell us about the kind of work you’re doing with game programming. What do you find most enjoyable, and what do you find most challenging?
OB: Games development drew me as a means of telling a story, and of making it interactive with visual and sound components. I enjoy manipulating the characters and the animation – how they appear on the screen and respond to the players’ actions – as well as other events happening in the game.
Of the systems I've worked on over the last year, my favourite has been Character Customisation. I’ve had to explore ways to make all the system parts properly interchangeable, whilst minimising the impact on efficient performance.
A major challenge has been the trade-off between performance and the accuracy of the game physics. For example, when a character walks up stairs, the feet mustn’t go through the stairs, nor should they bounce off into space, but the movement and visuals have to be fast enough to look realistic… We’re constantly tweaking and finding workarounds to get the best balance!
CIMF: Can you give us any teasers about the game you’re designing at the moment?
OB: My team has been working on our current major project Dismantle: Construct Carnage for about eighteen months. Dismantle is a “couch multiplayer” game in which players build ‘constructs,’ fantastical creations like robots, and have them fight in a tournament. As a construct takes damage, it’ll lose parts of its body, being forced to hop, crawl or even roll around as a head. The winner is the one that has not been reduced to tiny pieces by the end!
CIMF: Why is music so important to a game, and what sets it apart from other musical genres?
OB: Game music creates mood, time and place, representing characters and/or foreshadowing what is about to happen – in that way it’s similar to film music. However, unlike in film, the music can affect the players’ reactions, which affects how they play, and what happens in the game, which then affects the music again. So, the music is interactive with the player, as well as with the action of the game. Whereas film scoring is done for the completed footage, with each scene or cue having a set length, a game and its soundtrack may run differently every time they’re played.
CIMF: What sorts of things do you have to take into consideration when designing music for games?
OB: First of all, the style of the music needs to suit the worlds and characters of the game. For example, Kingdom Hearts includes Disney characters and uses themes and inspiration from the Disney films; the Dark Souls series uses symphonic, orchestral aesthetics; and Hotline Miami, with its retro, ‘neon art’ look, uses electronica or synthwave-style music. Due to constant variations in timing, intensity, choice and order of scenes and actions, the music has to be able to loop without getting dull. It also has to transition well between different elements, and should have plenty of variety whilst being cohesive as a whole.
CIMF: Which comes first, the chicken or the egg: does the game’s music ever influence the game’s development, or is it the game which decrees what the music will be?
OB: In our case, it runs both ways. Some of the music we've received from our lead composer, Daniel Kempton, has inspired us to plan out levels or arenas to suit it. Other times we've created a level and shown it to Dan, who then composed music to suit the scenario.
CIMF: What kind of involvement do you have with music?
OB: Aside from an interest in composing more music for games in future, I'm actively involved in community music in Canberra. This year, I’m playing with James McCusker Orchestra, Victoria Street Brass Band, Maruki Community Orchestra and the South Canberra Youth Wind Orchestra. I play trombone, French horn, tuba and other brass instruments as needed. On the games side, I've done composition for some of my own projects in the past, as well as being in charge of integrating the music into Dismantle.
CIMF: What are you looking forward to playing at the Game On! Concert?
OB: I'm most looking forward to playing the medley that's been specially arranged of our Dismantle music. It’ll also be great to hear the music from other games, particularly Kingdom Hearts and Halo, which were among my favourites as I was growing up.
Owain Bolt grew up playing instruments and video games, fostering an enduring love of both gaming and music. After finishing his studies at Canberra’s Academy of Interactive Entertainment in 2015, he founded Great Helm Games with three of his classmates. Their most recent project, Dismantle, has no scheduled release date as yet, but meanwhile you can get a preview of the game and its music at the Canberra International Music Festival’s Game On! concert, starting at 11 am on Saturday, 6 May.